F L E M I S H P A P E R S
Designs made from wood blocks
hand cut by Grant O’Brien
A BIT OF HISTORY
Many years ago when I was making copies of Ruckers virginals and harpsichords, I cut quite a large number of wood-blocks from which I printed up the patterns that were necessary to decorate these instruments. Doing this was one of the many ways that I tried to learn more about the processes involved in the making of the historical instruments made by the various members of the Ruckers family before I wrote my book on the Ruckers family tradition. Since then these hand-cut blocks have lain neglected and un-used. In the intervening period between when they were cut some 40 years ago and now many people have asked me if I would sell papers printed from these blocks. As I now have a bit of time, I have decided to make copies of these papers available to the public and to other harpsichord makers in particular. These papers are printed on hand-made acid-free cotton/linen rag paper which will not discolour with age. Unfortunately most modern Flemish papers currently available are printed on cheap but readily available wood-pulp paper which, just like old newspapers, becomes brittle, turns darker and discolours with age and exposure to light. Only acid-free rag paper has the intrinsic stability ensuring that it does not to change properties with exposure to light over a long period of time. Hand-made, neutral pH paper is, however, much more expensive than ordinary paper because of the amount of time and manual work that goes into its manufacture. This, along with the time involved in the actual preparation of the designs and the cutting of the blocks, is one of the main components of the cost of these papers.
MAKING THE BLOCKS
These blocks are not completely 'authentic'! It is likely that the original blocks used to make the Flemish papers, as with many of the similar blocks in the Plantin Moretus Museum in Antwerp, were made of pear, apple, cherry and, most often, of box. The woods used in the old blocks are ideal for cutting wood blocks in many respects. They are all extremely fine-grained and it is possible to cut very fine detail in them. Their hardness also means that they do not break nor wear easily (although it is clear from the papers on the Ruckers instruments that chips and defects occurred to the blocks and developed with time). But their hardness was, for me, one of their chief difficulties. As someone initially with no experience in wood-block carving, I found that my attempts using such hard and intransigent materials were mostly unsuccessful. So I used lime wood (tilia europaea - similar to American basswood = tilia americana) instead. The amount of fine detail in the designs of the Flemish papers is not great, so the fact that lime is not capable of being cut in such detail was not really a problem. I was not making a vast number of prints so that wear was also not a problem.
Because the wood of the block is cut plankwise, the cutter has to pull the knife toward himself. The technique of wood engraving was a later development and is done on end-grain boxwood using a graver pushed away from the cutter who is making the block. During printing the part of the block cut away is not inked, and the pattern printed results from ink transferred from the uncut flat sections of the block onto the paper. Obviously the patterns consisting of a black background with the pattern in white were quicker to cut than the corresponding negative pattern since less wood had to be cut away, and this may explain the rather large numbers of this type of 'black' patterns in existence.
In order to make an accurate copy of the Flemish paper designs I first of all photographed the original papers in situ on the original instruments, and with a ruler included in the photograph as a reference to get the scale and size of the papers correct. With the negative reversed and, using the scaled ruler as a basis to give the size of the original, I got a full-scale mirror image print of each of the patterns. In fact I made the image slightly less than full-scale to allow for the eventual expansion of the photographic paper when it was glued onto the block used for cutting, and further when the paper was glued in place in the instrument. The photographic image was glued onto a carefully-prepared piece of perfectly flat, plank-sawn lime using water-soluble glue.
When cutting the block it was necessary to angle the cut so that the process of cutting the fine detail determined both the edge of the pattern and also cut away the wood underneath at one and the same time. This meant that if the photographic paper was thick then the edge of the cut in the wood was slightly displaced from the edge of the cut at the top surface of the photographic paper because of parallax. To reduce the parallax effect I used a special 'air mail' photographic paper that was very thin. Even so the pattern often had to be cut out additionally by a small amount so that the small details were of the same 'weight' on the new block as on the original designs on the instruments.
To cut the blocks I used only a craftsman's Stanley knife with a 5901 or a 5903 blade, and a very small 'U'-shaped gouge to remove the unwanted material from the surface. No other tools were required. When the cutting was finished the block was immersed in water to dissolve away the paper. The block was left to dry and the unwanted wood fibres raised by the water, and some of the other imperfections were trimmed away.
Needless to say, the cutting of these blocks is a very laborious process, and each block requires a great deal of time to cut. Naturally this part of the production of these papers contributes significantly to the overall cost of the printed paper patterns. Once cut and finished off, the block can then either be inked and printed by hand or, if the block is made of the right thickness, it can be printed in a block-printer's printing press.
An example of the wood blocks used to print the designs for the papers being provided from this website. The block shown here is the one used to make the designs for the O'Brien Pellegrino 2 (top), O'Brien Type 16 (middle) and O'Brien Type 5a (bottom) papers. The latter was the source of the pattern on the dust-jacket of my book on the Ruckers-family tradition.
Many of the patterns used by the Ruckers family were taken from Renaissance pattern books which were printed expressly for the use of decorators, gold and silver smiths, embroiderers, lace-makers, etc. Two of the books used as a source of these patterns are by the Renaissance artists Francesco Pellegrino and Balthasar Sylvius. The patterns in these books are wonderfully inventive and exhibit a great beauty of form and design. They are based on Arabic and Moorish art and make use of stylised vines, leaves, ribbons, and bands interlaced together sometimes in the form of knots of geometrical patterns and sometimes as exotic arabesques.
One of the paper pattern source books is by Balthasar Sylvius. In 1939 Scheurleer (D.F. Lunsingh Scheurleer, 'Over het Ornament en de Autenticiteit van Bedruckte Papierstrooken in Twee Clavierinstrumenten', Mededelingen van de Dienst Voor Kunsten en Wetenschappen, (The Gemeentemuseum, The Hague, 1939) 45) discovered three of the Flemish block-printed patterns in this book, but in fact it is the source of at least 12 complete patterns, and the border patterns of 4 others. The Sylvius pattern book was published in Antwerp in 1554 under the title Variarum protractionum quas vulgo Maurusias vocant.... This was the time of the 'Golden Age' in Antwerp when there was a flourishing trade in the new port there in all sorts of articles such as decorated cups, plates, vases, goblets, boxes, knife sheaths, as well as lace, embroidery, trimmings, braids, etc. Obviously a book such as this would find a ready market and its patterns would be put to a multitude of uses in such an artistic atmosphere.
The second of the known pattern books on which some of the designs of the original Flemish woodblocks were based is La fleur de la science de pourtraicture. Patroms de broderie, facon arabicque et ytalique, (Paris, 1530; reprint Jean Schmidt, Paris, 1908). I discovered in Munich many years ago that this was one of the books used by the block printers who supplied the Ruckers and other Flemish makers with their paper patterns. A number of the patterns in the book by Pellegrino appears on Ruckers instruments. However, many of the patterns in the Pellegrino's book which do not appear on Ruckers instruments are ideally suited for use on copies of Ruckers instruments. It seems to me likely that some of these other designs may well have been used on Flemish instruments, but that these designs are now unknown because the instruments have not survived. Indeed some of the Flemish papers in my catalogue have survived on only one instrument. Had this one instrument with its papers not survived, we would never know of the existence of its paper pattern. There are also many, many Ruckers instruments which have survived but which have lost all of their Flemish paper pattern designs because of the ravalement and re-decoration of these instruments in a later period. Presumably some of these designs which have not survived were designs also taken from or based upon designs from Pellegrino's book.
I have therefore used some of the designs from the Pellegrino pattern book to make new strip patterns by repeating some of the patterns in this book a number of times lengthways (see the top design cut on the block above) in the same spirit as that used by those who cut the blocks for the patterns which do still survive on Ruckers instruments. Three of these new strip patterns including the one seen at the top of the block illustrated above are listed at the end of my catalogue of Flemish papers.
The following is the extract from my book Ruckers. A harpsichord and virginal building tradition which deals with the making of paper in Antwerp in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries:
'The paper onto which the patterns were printed was made by hand, one sheet at a time. The raw material consists of linen and cotton rags beaten and mixed with water. The pulp mixture was brought into a vat where it was kept in a state of agitation to ensure even mixing by a kind of paddle or hog. The paper-maker or vat man picked up a layer of the pulp on a mould consisting of a mesh of fine parallel wires tightly stretched or 'laid' between the sides of a wooden frame. The wires of the mould are close enough together to retain the fibres on the upper surface, and far enough apart to allow the water to drain away. It is these wires with the occasional transverse chain wires, onto which the pulp collects more or less unevenly, that produces the characteristic ribbed texture of hand-made paper.
The layer of pulp was removed from the mould onto a felt cloth. The resulting sheet of paper was covered by another sheet of felt, until a pile consisting of alternate layers of paper and felt was formed. This was then pressed in a screw press in a series of operations, first of all with the felts and later with them removed, to squeeze out all excess water and to give the surface of the sheets the required finish. The paper was then sized with one of various sorts of fillers according to the purpose to which it was going to be put, and hung and allowed to dry.
The paper produced by this method and used by the Flemish builders is of an extremely fine quality without any coarse fibres and with little surface texture. It is quite strongly sized so that the ink does not bleed into the paper. The thickness of the paper which they used is about 0.085mm to 0.12mm, with a weight of about 60 to 70gm/m2.'
THE PAPER AND THE INKS
Like the material used in the originals, the papers used to print these patterns and sold from this site are hand made from linen and cotton rags. The paper has a neutral pH which, along with it being made of cotton and linen rags, means that it does not deteriorate with age. In this respect it is just like the old papers which have survived to the present day without any sign of becoming brittle and without darkening or discolouration. Like the antique papers, the signs of the wire mesh used in the moulds to make them are clearly visible and often the printed pattern is modulated by the texture of the paper substrate, and this contributes greatly to the 'hand-made' quality of the papers.
Most of the paper has a weight of about 80 - 100 gm/m2. Being hand-made each sheet of paper is slightly different from the others and thus the variation in the weight of each sheet. The paper is sized so that the ink (or paint, when it is later decorated) used on it will not 'bleed' into the fibres of the paper. The edges of any ink lines and painted arabesques drawn on the paper therefore remain crisp and sharp. The paper has good wet strength and does not tear, fold or creep during glueing. Like all paper it expands slightly during gluing (only about 0.8%). One of the reasons for choosing the paper used here is because it has a LOW expansion coefficient, and therefore the tension in the paper after drying and the resultant tension in the wood resulting from this is as low as possible (see the following section). It does not, however, resist the erasing of pencil guide lines and positioning marks without the fibres and ink in the top surface coming away in the process. Hence any guide marks and lines should be drawn very, very lightly and erased with great care. The colour of the paper is a light 'antique cream', and looks soft and natural as a background to the printed designs. It is neither brilliant white nor an obvious grey or brown.
Every attention to detail has been exercised in the choice of this paper in order to ensure that it is of the highest quality and that it meets all the requirements listed above and necessary for the use as decorations in Flemish-style harpsichords and virginals. There has been close co-operation with the manufacturers to ensure that the paper has all the required properties and, indeed, the materials and process used for the production of these papers was unique and made by the paper manufacturers especially for the printing of these designs. As mentioned elsewhere the paper used to print these designs is expensive and accounts for the largest part of their cost.
Because of the excellent quality of the paper it can be left untreated after it is glued in place without any further treatment, varnishing or sizing. There are numerous examples of historical instruments that have survived since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with totally untreated papers and with little or no sign of damage or deterioration.
The inks used to print the designs are made from stable pigments so the permanence and the colour of the inks used to print these papers is excellent and will not change with long exposure to light.